Can Conservatives And Progressives Trust Journalism For The Sake Of Fighting 'Fake News'?

05/22/2017 04:57 pm ET Updated May 22, 2017

To fight fake news in a bipartisan way, Republicans and Democrats need to find it in themselves to trust professional journalism, while reserving verification rights.

We need to agree that the role of journalists is to enforce truthfulness as a basic ground rule for civic discourse, while advocates reserve the right, of course, to disagree with the conclusions fact checkers.

So it kills me that conservatives, like Colorado State Sen. Tim Neville (R-Littleton), won't accept respected journalistic fact checkers as arbiters of fake news, arguing instead that “each individual,” not reporters, should be the arbiter of fake news.

But maybe there's a road to compromise in liberty advocate Ari Armstrong's thoughtful definition of fake news that he articulated last month--much of which I agree with.

Armstrong and I diverge from the thinking of most journalists on the definition of fake news, because we both define fake news based on the content of the news story, not its source. In other words, we both agree that a fake news story could come from the Washington Post, Brietbart, BigMedia.org, PeakPolitics.com, or TheFreePatriot.org.

If you define fake this way, you allow conservatives, who might hate the Washington Post, and progressives, who might hate Breitbart, to agree on a starting point to discuss how to address the fake news problem. So I accept the idea that any outlet could produce fake news.

But how could someone like me, who has such respect for journalism, possibly agree that the New York Times could be a potential source of fake news? Because, as Armstrong points out, a credible news outlet like the Times will go to great length not to make errors and to correct them quickly. So if it makes a mistake, and produces a fake news item, its fake news will likely be ephemeral fake news.

But even if you accept that any news source can produce fake news, we need a practical way for liberals and conservatives to agree on a definition of fake news.

This definition has to rely on arbiters, rather than an individual's own case-by-case assessment, as proposed by Neville, because just like in any competition, partisans need referees to judge the game, in this case, to assess the facts.

That's why it's so unfortunate that most conservatives won't name journalistic entities that can help us referee the facts. By doing this, they are rejecting the role of professional journalism in society.

Both Armstrong and Neville have rejected the Fake News Pledge, which is a promise not to post fake news on Facebook. It defines fake news as a story "deemed false or inaccurate by Snopes, Politifact, Factcheck.org, or by a respected news outlet." It also must "packaged to look somehow like news."

That definition could snag an article from the Times, but as a practical matter, it's unlikely that a fact checker like Factcheck.org will find a factual error in a New York Times article before the Times corrects the error.

So I think the Fake News Pledge's simple definition should work for conservatives and progressives.

But who's optimistic? With Donald Trump's constant berating of mainstream media as "fake news," how could Trump followers ever accept journalists as arbiters of facts, especially given that everyday Republicans in America don't seem to. The Pew Research Center reported this month:

Today, in the early days of the Trump administration, roughly nine-in-ten Democrats (89%) say news media criticism keeps leaders in line (sometimes called the news media’s “watchdog role”), while only about four-in-ten Republicans (42%) say the same.

That's not encouraging for the prospects of Republicans accepting the Fake News Pledge and the role of journalist fact checkers as arbiters of fakeness. And it's bad news, no matter how you look at it.

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